A new employment right of bereavement leave for grieving parents has been officially enshrined in law after being given the royal stamp of approval.
The Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill, introduced following campaigns by a number of groups and charities, is the first of its kind in the U.K. Expected to come into force in 2020, the law will entitle all employed parents to a day-one right to 2 weeks’ leave if they lose a child under the age of 18 or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Employed parents will be able to claim pay for this period provided that they meet certain criteria, including that they have been in employment with their employer for a continuous period of 26 weeks. Pay will be calculated at 90% of average weekly earnings or provided at the statutory flat rate. The intention is that small firms will be able to reclaim the full cost from the government, with larger firms recouping about 90%.
Currently, grieving parents have no automatic right to time off work although the Employment Rights Act allows employees to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant which may include arrangements following death. What is reasonable is not defined and, in practice, the length of leave granted to bereaved parents is whatever can be agreed between the employer and the employee.
Whilst in a large portion of cases employers will be understanding and sympathetic towards an employee who has suffered the death of a child, cases have been reported where a parent has been restricted to taking only 3 days leave, one of which had to be used for the day of the child’s funeral. MP’s have therefore urged employers to view the two week period set out in the bill as a minimum and to continue to use their discretion depending on the individual circumstances they are faced with. Overall, it is hoped that the law will signify a cultural shift in the business world.
To prepare for the change in the law, employers should ensure that they have a Compassionate Leave policy within their Staff Handbook which is both up to date and fit for purpose. Such policies often pose difficulties for employers as they attempt to strike the balance between being clearly defined whilst not being too prescriptive for the complex needs of real-life situations. Indeed, the new law itself has come under some criticism for limiting its extent to the death of children under the age of 18 with some suggesting that this is an artificial cut-off which is inappropriate in the context of losing a child.
With this in mind, it is advisable for employers to have a carefully drafted policy which clearly outlines the scope of statutory entitlements and any additional company policies, whilst leaving room for discretion on a case by case basis. This should allow for effective absence management which meets the needs of the business whilst maintaining a sensitive and practical approach towards the employee at what is undoubtedly an extremely traumatic time.